Yes, Virginia, You Can Fight City Hall!
Women Electricians Win Stunning Victory
Ed Rader
volume:  
volume 3
issue 1
Spring 1977

A pivotal sex discrimination case against Seattle City Light has been won by eight pioneering women electrical workers with a never-say-die fighting spirit.

Their intransigent three-year-long battle for their jobs wracked City of Seattle officialdom and finally forced it into a rare concession to female public employees — a $120,000 admission of guilt!

The women electrical trainees were represented by the Seattle Office of Women’s Rights. This agency, charged with enforcing Seattle’s Fair Employment Practices Ordinance, is itself the result of a successful campaign by local feminists to win a civil rights enforcement agency for women.

A three-member Hearing Panel selected by the City Women’s Commission ordered the Department of Lighting (City Light) to pay the female Electrical Trades Trainees more than $120,000 in back pay and damages.

City Light was instructed to rehire the ETTs and place them in apprenticeship programs within six months of their return to work. The Hearing Panel also decreed that the Office of Women’s Rights undertake a two year monitoring of (1) City Light’s record in hiring women for the skilled trades, and (2) any future disciplinary action against the ETTs. City Light also had to pay $23,000 in fees to the ETTs’ excellent attorney, Eugene Moen, who orchestrated the women’s defense throughout an unparalleled three week hearing.

Case Makes Waves

The “ETT case” is famous in the Pacific Northwest. The precedent-setting conflict originated three years ago when ten women were selected from a field of several hundred applicants to engage in a unique program designed to train women as utility-electricians in a trade exclusively reserved for men.

The two year training program was slated to include classroom education and on-the-job training. It included a key three week Orientation and Pre-Placement segment that focused on physical training, basic electrical theory, and driver education for the large rigs. The women would advance to become Helpers, then Apprentices, and finally Journey“men.”

It was a model program. Except for one small detail: City Light management could care less about Affirmative Action. At that time, it was frantically busy trying to crush a full-scale employee revolt, and had no use whatsoever for ten uppity women determined to break into the electrical trades.

Big Trouble at City Light

In April, 1974, two months before the trainees were hired, a long-simmering feud between City Light electrical workers and management exploded into a sudden walkout of seven hundred workers. The immediate cause of the wildcat strike was the suspension of two crew chiefs for an allegedly unauthorized coffee break, but the underlying issue was the ignorant, heavy-handed and dictatorial management style of Superintendent Gordon Vickery, a po¬litical appointee of Mayor Wes Uhlman.

Vickery, the former Fire Chief, utilized paramil¬itary personnel policies, and the proud, freewheel¬ing electricians were outraged. Still, they might have gone back to work after a few days were it not for the remarkable infusion of support from equally angry white collar workers and professionals who began to join them on the second day.

The collective strength of this amazing combination of 1200 vociferous electricians, engineers, clerical workers, technicians, professionals, and some middle-management administrators forced the mayor and Vickery to concede, and after eleven “electric” days of strike, an Agreement was signed.

The Agreement provided for (1) a citizen review board to conduct a public investigation of City Light management practices; (2) a joint labor-management committee which would draw up an “Employee Bill of Rights;” (3) a “No Reprisals” pledge; and (4) an arbitration panel to rule on the coffee break charge.

The struggle then shifted to another plane The workers skillfully challenged management at the Public Review Committee hearings and in Bill of Rights Committee negotiations. The bosses frenziedly defended themselves by harassing employee leaders and making everyone’s life miserable.

“No Reprisal” Pledge?

One of the employee leaders was Clara Fraser, Education Coordinator for City Light, and Chair of the three-person employee team elected to negotiate the Employee Bill of Rights. She was also the person who coordinated the planning and implementation of the ETT program, with primary responsibility for it.

In order to retaliate against Fraser, Vickery decided to sabotage the ETT program. He abruptly cancelled the women’s Pre-Placement training and summarily eliminated Fraser’s responsibilities as ETT coordinator, replacing her with a male administrator who ignored the program.

Nine of the ten trainees, indignant over this violation of contract, filed sex discrimination charges, citing the removal of Fraser and the cancellation of promised Pre-Placement training. (One of the nine women who filed charges left the program soon afterwards; the tenth trainee was a management stooge from the outset.)

Six of the women who filed charges reported their protest action to an employee mass meeting and pointedly joined forces with the employee movement. Vickery responded characteristically by adding the trainees to his enemies list as he pursued his merciless vendetta against worker dissidents.

For the entire next year, until they were laid off in September, 1975, the ETTs waged a daily struggle to keep their jobs, secure the training they were guaranteed, win employee, union and community support, and beat back management’s onslaught of harassment, intimidation, threats, deception, deceit, red-baiting and character assassination.

The women performed Helper work, but received only trainee-level wages. They were targets for anonymous letters from supposed “irate citizens” who accused them of everything from drinking on the job to “fondling” with a black co-worker (at a crowded intersection in the University district!). They were ordered to sign a loyalty oath to the effect that they would not question Vickery’s policies upon pain of termination.

Finally, in September, 1975, fifteen months after they were hired with much ado and considerable fanfare, they received a polite letter from Vickery congratulating them on “successful completion of the program.” This bureaucratese meant they were to be laid off. And so they were, except for two trainees kept on as token Helpers.

The year long fight to regain their jobs began.

Troops to the Rescue

Some of the women had been active in their union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 77, a fact which helped them win considerable support from the rank-and-file and union officials.

The ETTs appealed to feminists, trade unionists and minority-employment advocates in the Seattle area, receiving excellent backing from these sources — especially from the Feminist Coordinating Council which gave unstinting aid.

Media coverage was uniformly good and helped to garner widespread endorsement of their fight.

Vick(t)ery!

The ETTs were able to construct an impressive legal case because they had assiduously obtained hundreds of relevant memos and documents. The evidence in their favor was so overwhelming that the Hearing Panel unanimously overturned the negative findings of the Hearing Examiner, a mayoral appointee, and found for the ETTs on all counts.

The panelists (a female lawyer, a male lawyer, and a female state-agency administrator) ruled that the ETTs were the victims of a reprisal; had been unjustly laid off; were not given equal pay for equal work; and were arbitrarily denied training opportunities previously furnished to male trainees. (The panelists were later subjected to public vilification by Vickery and his cohorts, but to no avail.)

Heidi Durham, an ETT who is now an Apprentice lineworker, attributes the stunning . victory to the solidarity of the trainees, the support from IBEW Local 77 and hundreds of other City Light workers, the assistance of feminists and Office of Women’s Rights staffworkers and attorney, intense public interest, and general disgust with the Uhlman-Vickery stripe of venal politician.

Six women are now back on the job, once again confronting persecution and neglect by City Light management. But an indubitable fact has emerged from the complex three year bout: women have decisively entered the electrical trades and they will not be easily dislodged.

(Note: Clara Fraser was abruptly “laid off” in July, 1975, just a few weeks after the completion of the Employee Bill of Rights. She charged City Light with discrimination on the basis of sex and political ideology, and her case is currently being investigated by the City’s Department of Human Rights.)